My SNA VM 49: Be Mindful About Cultural Education (Sept 25, 2023), on how teaching people about Japan can backfire if the regular stereotyping found in language education isn’t carefully considered


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Hi Blog. Here’s my latest column.  Enjoy. Debito Arudou, Ph.D.


Japan’s internationalization is inevitable. So is teaching Japan’s future generations of diversity. If done wrong, educating about Japanese culture and society could do more harm than good.
By Debito Arudou, Ph.D., SNA Visible Minorities column 49, Sept 25, 2023

Like it or not, Japan’s internationalization is happening.  There are fewer Japanese and more foreigners than ever.  In 2022, the population of Japanese citizens dropped below the 125 million mark for the first time in Japan’s modern era, while the registered Non-Japanese (NJ) population reached a record high at over 3 million, or 2.4% of the total population.

That can only grow.  Even if the NJ population numerically stayed the same as it is now, its percentage of the total population will still rise due to Japan’s below-replacement birthrates.  But the NJ population will not stay the same — the economics of Japan’s aging labor force is reaching the point where officials see the writing on the wall.  According to a recent Kyodo News survey, a whopping 86% of Japan’s municipalities want more NJ workers to do the jobs and save their senescent cities from extinction. 

All of these figures do not, of course, include all the multicultural and multiethnic children already in Japan with diverse identities and backgrounds — routinely ignored because Japan’s Census does not measure for ethnicity. So if anything, Japan’s internationalization is grossly underestimated.


The front line of this trend is Japan’s education system, where the children of immigrants make an immediate and urgent impact on society. This is not news. For more than a quarter century, local governments have begged for enhanced services to help their residents with language and acculturation barriers assimilate into their schools and communities. The national government has basically ignored them.

But we are seeing some progress. Multilingual manuals about local customs and rules have long been issued by governments and civil society, including some helpful training videos to help explain elementary school rules and cultural practices in simpler Japanese. A good example was produced by students at Wakayama University and featured in the Mainichi last year.

This is highly laudable. But a point of caution: This isn’t just a matter of telling all Newcomers to “Do as the Romans do.” Without mindful production of teaching materials grounded in solid social science, cultural education could have the opposite effect: Solidifying stereotypes, entrenching prejudice, and making the perceived newcomer feel like a perpetually subordinated outsider.

Consider some bad habits that are the default mode:

One is systemic — the tendency towards stereotyping within language teaching itself. I recall my French language textbooks introducing “French things” (petit pan, grande pan, etc.) as something all French people ate. No mention, say, of couscous, or other ethnic but Francophone cuisines. Or for that matter of other Francophone people. All French people in my textbooks were white, which simply didn’t reflect reality.

To the untrained eye, that meant that whatever doesn’t fit a textbook image of “Frenchness” wasn’t seen as “French.” It put up artificial walls between peoples simply out of habit or convenience. That’s because basic language training necessarily tends to overgeneralize about societies and boil them down to foundational language. But resorting to prototype omits developments in society, such as cultural diversity from international migration.

That’s why we need trained eyes to avoids stereotyping. Let social scientists, not just linguists or untrained do-gooders, also have input into the learning process.

But there are also some bad habits that are intrinsic to Japan, easily seen when even the most educated people teach Japanese culture…


Consider the narrative focus on “Japanese uniqueness,” as in, “only Japan has this,” for just about anything worthy of portraying as “Japanese.”  For example, I’ve seen educational materials claiming that enjoying four seasons and eating octopus are “uniquely Japanese.”.  Calamari, anyone?

One problem with the “uniqueness trope” is that it prioritizes differences over similarities.  This is the natural outcome of humanities as a field seeing culture as a constellation of contrasts.  Anything not remarkable or dramatic enough to cause “culture shock” doesn’t seem to be all that worthy of study.

Yet no matter what, people are far more similar than they are different (start with the fact that we are carbon-based mammals and work up).  And by portraying even the most mundane things (such as using chopsticks, taking off your shoes at the doorway, or sorting your garbage) as some kind of cultural minefield only serves to make study of other societies unduly formidable and anal-retentive.  

So focus on practical goals.  Give them the right words to accomplish the tasks and things will flow from there.

The other problem with fixating on difference to the point of “uniqueness” is that it encourages ascription and exclusion.  Anything deviating from the portrayed image of “Japaneseness” automatically becomes “foreign.”  

Consider the political outcomes of this.  Let’s say you have a suggestion for how things could be done better, but alas, you’re a foreigner?  Too bad.  It won’t work in Japan because we are unique and not like any other foreign country and we do things differently.  Foreign things must automatically be different or they wouldn’t be foreign.  

But what if a Japanese suggests the same thing?  Well, we can’t accept that either.  Obviously it’s still not the norm, because if it were, you wouldn’t be suggesting a change.  

Either way, the door is slammed on social change.  Eliminating the possibility of any cultural overlap reinforces the “us versus them” mindset and feeds directly into social othering, all of which are counterproductive to societies evolving.


Another problem is portraying Japan as a monolith.  Guidebooks on Japan tend to represent it as a one-size-fits-all experience, and that “Japanese behavior” is predictable down to topic sentences without exception:  “We Japanese think or behave this way.”  Switch on the TV (especially NHK World) and you’ll see that narrative reinforced daily.  

That’s just stereotyping all over again, and it ignores all the regional differences that plainly exist once you get to know Japan as individuals, regions, dialects, and local mores.

Whenever I get asked to say something about Japan, especially by people who want to go there and experience it for themselves (which I always heartily encourage), I always add the caveat that, “Your mileage may vary, depending on how you’re perceived.”  If I were shorter, darker-haired or -skinned, female or non-binary, younger or older etc., my experience of interactions with Japanese society would differ.  

Teaching people about life in Japan has to incorporate the inevitability of diversity and exception.  There are just so many Japans out there.

The knock-on ill-effect of portraying all Japanese as being a certain way (including physical appearance) means that those who aren’t are not “real Japanese.”  

This feeds directly into teaching the students and future residents of Japan that in the end they don’t really belong here.  Even if they learn the rules, they never be part of the group that makes the rules.  

Why do you think so few of the Non-Japanese on Caregiver Visas who underwent Japan’s very difficult nursing program stayed on afterwards?  Because they were only trained to work, not belong to the guild that trained them, or ever assimilate and become Japanese.


One final problem to be aware of is that teachers and students should not assume the mantle of what I call “Cultural Ambassadors.”  Being told that “Japan is this way” and “How is it in your society?”  As if they as individuals could possibly represent whole societies with any real accuracy.  After all, being an ambassador takes very specific training in social science, including diplomacy, cultural representation, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

The problem with untrained “do-gooders” indulging in cultural education, and “culture vultures” trying to be helpful and “taking foreigners under their wing,” is that they’re generally not mindful of what they’re doing.  They’re often not trying to be a friend on your terms.  They’re often studying you like an animal in a zoo or a protozoan in a Petri dish, treating you like a pet or a means to an end.  

How many failed relationships and marriages have resulted from people glomming onto you because they were “Gaijin Groupies”?  They liked you as in idea more than you as an individual.

Let’s not let cultural education at the compulsory education level fall into these bad habits.


A lot of the tweaks are simple.  Make sure that language generalizing about Japan allows for exceptions.  “Some Japanese… most Japanese… almost all Japanese.”  

But some educational materials must show some awareness of the politics of inclusivity.  Make sure that people of diversity are also included in textbook perceptions of the Self, as a part of Japanese society.  That if they learn the rules and assimilate, that they too can have a role in being part of the process of rule creation.

Also, be aware that there are always politics behind any cultural training.  Make sure that the “How-Tos” don’t overstep their bounds.  Focus on the rules and how to follow them, and avoid going beyond that to demand people give up their power and become obedient “Model Minorities.”  

How to do that?  See them as individuals here for good trying to learn the ropes.  Help them become residents of Japan, if not colleagues and friends.  Don’t treat them something temporary, as if they are a rare bird with remarkable plumage that magically alighted on your windowsill, here only for an instant and gone tomorrow.  

Simply put, show some real empathy.  What would you want to know if you were moving into a new society and trying to fit in?  Treat Newcomers and neophytes as you would like to be treated.  Sounds obvious to say, but all sorts of bad habits get in the way.


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14 comments on “My SNA VM 49: Be Mindful About Cultural Education (Sept 25, 2023), on how teaching people about Japan can backfire if the regular stereotyping found in language education isn’t carefully considered

  • The We Japanese have 4 Seasons is probably from Nation Building in the Meiji Era, to appear akin to European powers as opposed to e.g. other Asian countries further south that tend not to.

    It conveniently ignores Tsuyu (Rainy Season) which is most certainly a season (its in the name) but that would not resemble a European country.

    With the shrinking of Autumn to a few short weeks in modern times, Japan does indeed now have 4 seasons, Spring (Hay Fever), Tsuyu, Summer, Winter. Another red rag to wave in front of the Nihonjinron peddlers one encounters.

    Still, it is unique, so they cannot complain at such a humorous riposte.

  • It could be conceded that the Japanese language is unique. Indeed, only one other language is similar in terms of alphabet and word order.


    So yes, the Japanese/Korean language grouping is unique.

    Suck it up, nationalists. Unless they’re going to pull a Serbo-Croat and try to say two almost identical languages are different for political reasons. I am sure some will try.

    • Andrew in Saitama says:

      I have heard genuine linguistic theory that Japonic and Korean are in fact different languages, the Japonic group also originating on the Korean peninsula and being replaced by the Korean group after the Japonic group (which includes Ainu and the Ryukyuan languages) migrated east.
      Trying to claim linguistic uniqueness due to writing systems is clutching at straws, IMHO.

      • Nationalistic Narcissism of Small Differences.
        Oh, Japan…..

        N.b. Where’d the royal family really come from? (red flag to a rightist bull#2)

      • I often mishear Koreans speaking on the street for being Japanese for a second or two. The sentence endings are somewhat redolent of each other, at least to an outsider and not a Nationalist Small Difference Narcissist.

        The alphabet structure of sounds of Hangul when I studied it was very similar to Hiragana, i.e. sounds in groups of five except Korean has a few extra sounds.

        N.b. I learnt Korean in Japan so it may have been organized in a similar way to Hiragana at the time.

    • Totally illogical post by you, Baudrillard, which is a rarity. Many languages share similar word order with Japanese – Turkic languages, “upper” Nepalese, Mongolian languages, many of the the western Siberian languages, the Finno-Ugric languages, and at a stretch classical Hungarian and Finnish.
      Seems you bought into the Korean / Japanese uniqueness spiel more than you realized.

  • The stereotype reinforcement starts early. I remember seeing junior high school texts that just come out and say “Japanese people eat rice”, as if it’s a rule. And the presumption is that is a cultural marker that defines Japanese people against other people. But in REALITY, it doesn’t have that significance, it’s just a wishful delusion.

    • „Japanese people eat rice“ So short story time, but my Japanese girlfriend didn‘t like rice and she told me that she had to answer questions like „Are you really Japanese?“ during her childhood constantly.

      The Japanese education system deliberately doesn‘t want to view people as individuals because the LDP has to keep the „ware ware Nihonjin“ myth alive. It‘s always Nihonjin this, Nihonjin that and Gaijin this, Gaijin that.

      The „Cultural Ambassadors“ phenomenon that Debito mentions is a result of that. The worst thing is that sometimes they don‘t even ask you things like „How is it in your country?“ but literally „Do all foreigners do this or that?“

      Baudrillard once told a story that one of the staff at his school asked the teachers if foreigners know how to use western toilets. I remember that someone asked me once what foreigners think of natto, as if I could somehow speak for over 7 billion people.

      Literally 0 critical thinking skills. But this is by design, because the erai hito don‘t want the Japanese public to be able to think critically. They want obidient citizens who are smart enough to run the machines and do unlimited overtime, but don‘t ask any questions.

      And for the past 30 years wages have stagnated, while prices and taxes have gone up, so being part of the „Japanese“ in group and towering over all the dirty „gaijins“ is basically the only thing Japan has to offer its citizens.

      Or like Taro Aso would say Japan is the only country with a single race, language and 2,000-year-old monarchy. Of course none of that is true, but who cares about facts if you can hammer Nihonjiron ideology into every child.

      • @Niklas, excellent comments I totally concur with. This -“„Japanese“ in group and towering over all the dirty „gaijins“ is basically the only thing Japan has to offer its citizens.”

        This has been commented on in various articles as part of the Abe Zeitgeist (now legacy) that is with falling wages, rising taxation, human rights dependent on employers and erai hito i.e. privileges not inherent rights as enshrined in the besieged American imposed constitution, all they really get in return is a privileged sense of belonging to the Volk.

        So, National Socialism without the guaranteed holidays, animal rights (whaling, dolphining continues and in the former case even intensifies) or cheap Volkswagens. Humorous yet relevant tangent (file under, “The jig is up”, “End of Apologism in the age of other Asian Alternatives”) and “Why is this a meme?”)

        Something about the LDP and their long shadow that doesn’t get much discussed since post Korean War and Japan’s hasty rebranding as a Western Nation (they got that acceptance in defeat, ironically) , is that it was largely set up by (drum roll) the one and only Nobuske(be) Kishi (Abe’s grandfather). A war criminal and pervert, who was suddenly deprived of his daily sex fix by the Americans.

        Thus the whole 1955 system tone was the idea of keeping the old Imperial Japanese (fascist) social values going on the quiet so as the foreign policy appeased American geo political interests, and as they shared an anti communist stance, this was not hard.
        Furthermore, they felt under pressure from American influence (the constitution) and this was push back against it.
        Thirdly, inferiority complex. The narrative of America won because they’re physically bigger (dovetails nicely with simplistic racial theories) , but hey, to compensate We Japanese are unique, Nihonjinron is special in other ways, and we must preserve this special mystical culture (even if a lot of this isn’t really that traditional like Tatemae/honne relationships which only started post WW2). Or to quote one annoying rando Oyaji with issues in his cups at a ramen shop, “American think we are Yellow Monkey, but clever”.

        Nah, you just made that one up yourselves.

      • -didn‘t like rice and she told me that she had to answer questions like „Are you really Japanese?“
        More Japanese Than Thou twist “Yeah, but is THIS RICE really Japanese?” Japonica rice originated from Central China, where it was first domesticated along the Yangtze River basin approximately 9,500 to 6,000 years ago.

        My Japanese Individual Identity should trump your (actually Marxist) Commodity Fetishism of Things Acquired to be build an Identity. “Being turned into having”

        Your acquisition and rebranding of things as “Japanese” and using these to build and prove your identity as a Japanese are ironically 1. recent not traditional 2. a product (pun) of Capitalism/Consumerism
        3. Superficial.

        One can see this as prevalent in Japan. Stereotypical images define relationships. Guy Debord would have loved it. The “Surfer dude” (guy with tan and dyed hair, doesn’t actually surf) dates the Gyaru in her pre requisite outfit and bling. Wanna be a DJ? Buy a baseball cap and wear it backwards!

        It keeps things simple if things live up to expectations. Thus if you the NJ do something unexpected of the stereotype, you’ll be labelled a henna gaijin. “Japan is where stereotypes are loved and cherished…. (if these are not as expected) “it leads to uncomfortable feelings” (Powers, Working in Japan, 1990).

        One of the most insulting things I ever was told was by a well meaning but infuriating student: “Oh, you paint too? You’re an artist …DAKARA KAWATTERU!” (= you have a life outside your apparent occupation therefore this explains any quirky comment or individualistic behavior)

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    ES and JHS English textbooks.
    Japanese are portrayed as ethnically homogenous. The word “unique” has a positive meaning and is only applied to Japanese things.
    The writers seem to go out of their way to talk about how influential Japan is on the rest of the world – “Monet and Van Gogh were heavily influenced by ukiyoe” – but that ukiyoe derived from Chinese woodblock printing, that and early subjects were often scenes from Chinese tales is ignored. (Because everything in Japan appeared spontaneously…)
    The mandatory Hiroshima stories.
    The insistence on using Japanese terminology (juku, shinkansen, manga, etc) instead of real-word English.
    Talking about the Japanese community in Brazil in a very basic introduction to the country (I wonder how the locals would feel about an ES-level introduction to Japan that was 25% talking about the Chinese community in Yokohama…)

    The list goes on.

  • The “Unique” micro aggression, aka the weird Gaijin. So tired of being called a “Henna Gaijin” for e.g. liking Mentaiko or something innocuous like that.

    Eventually, this got graciously moderated to 変わってる人 (Kawatteru hito) which I thought meant “different or unique” but actually Google translate at least still translates as “Strange Person”.

    So when I tried to explain that in western countries Individualism scores high on e.g. Hofstede’s cultural indicators, this got further modified by Japanese willing to throw me a bone into “Unique” in Katakana, as if it was a foreign concept.

    Maybe I missed it but I never ever heard anyone refer to an individual NJ as 個性的 Kosei teki or any other translation of “unique”,

    Any better translation in usage that can be applied to people?

    So, Japanese stuff and customs can be unique but people can’t? They just get ostracized as “Strange, weird or eccentric”

    This speaks volumes as to the whole (LDP) culture of prioritizing the Culture over individual humans.

    -The word “unique” has a positive meaning and is only applied to Japanese things.


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